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COLUMN RIGHT : Quayle or Even a Democrat Is Better : Bush inherited peace and prosperity. Now we face war and economic contraction.

December 23, 1990|TOM BETHELL | Tom Bethell is Washington editor of American Spectator

Originally, the button read "Quayle for President in '92." A couple of weeks ago it was overstamped with the word "Now!" Conservatives in Washington are beginning to wear it. Quayle Now! I'll vote for that.

Every week for eight years, George Bush had lunch with Ronald Reagan but plainly he never learned a thing from the old man. He seems to have calculated that he could keep Reagan's core constituency and then broaden it by becoming kinder and gentler. The right wouldn't have anywhere to go. Well, he's in for a surprise. Many conservatives would rather see a Democrat in the White House than a man who (as columnist Joseph Sobran put it) sounds like Woodrow Wilson one day and Daffy Duck the next. Better to be governed by those who proclaim their opposition to your principles than to be betrayed by those who pretend to adopt them.

This may seem to be mere pique, but the abandonment of conservative principle has disorienting consequences for the entire Republican Party. "Bush's Domestic Policy Seen in Disarray" is the headline on the front page of the Washington Post, not the Conservative Digest. In the article, Bush is characterized as "something of an absentee landlord" on domestic policy, suffering from "a lack of clear convictions." Phrases like "White House meltdown" and "tortured retreat" do not merely express conservative anguish but a general perception.

Bush inherited peace and prosperity. Two years later we face war and economic contraction. With a recession looming, Bush signed on to a massive tax increase. This was accompanied by a spending increase billed as "deficit reduction." Then he permitted the Kremlin to dip into the U.S. Treasury. His good friend Mikhail Gorbachev was in trouble, and the Soviet Union threatened to break apart unless we offered a helping hand.

Now comes the minority-scholarship fiasco. One of the few clear signals to emerge from it is Bush's timidity when confronted by the privilege-seeking civil-rights lobby. Affirmative action is a winning issue for Republicans, but only if they have the stomach to fight it. Abroad, Bush has assembled a massive army in the Saudi Arabian desert. He looks as though he is on the verge of starting a war that he thinks is justified because the United Nations has given its consent, even if Congress hasn't.

Conservatives believe that America was intended to have a government of limited and constitutional powers. Bush has no such vision. He's a big-government man all the way.

Obviously Quayle's political future is dependent on Bush's. In a sense, therefore, it's illogical to call both for Quayle Now and the defeat of Bush. (Unless, that is, Bush were to be impeached after a bad outcome in the Persian Gulf.) There's no question, however, that Quayle is more conservative than Bush and (like Reagan) has a better instinct for politics.

It is curious that this should be so. Unpromisingly, Quayle grew up next to a golf club outside Phoenix and became an enthusiastic golfer. As conservatives well know, golfing Republicans don't have a clue about ideological wars. Quayle has even given the impression of not being much interested in politics. If not picked by Bush, he probably would have left the Senate at the end of his term. Bush, on the other hand, made an enthusiastic career of politics, first as the loyal subordinate, then latching onto Reagan's coattails. (Now that he has let go of them, watch him fall.) All along, however, his political instincts seem to have been poor.

Conservatives believe that the decisive difference between Bush and Quayle is generational. For some reason--almost certainly the influence of the Depression and World War II--there seem to be very few conservatives of Bush's generation. There was an older conservative generation who understood the idea of limited government (Reagan was their spokesman), and as anyone who has been to Washington lately knows, there is an abundant younger generation similarly inclined. The vast majority of conservatives in the capital are younger than 40. Quayle, born in 1947, shares their perspective.

Whether we have a President Quayle now, later or never, it is certain that one day not too far off we will elect a President who did not grow up in the shadow of Depression and World War and who does not take the false vision of the United Nations seriously. Before that day arrives, however, we will probably have to endure a difficult two years with George Bush, no doubt the last exponent of that vision. Let's hope it isn't longer. Maybe it will be shorter.

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